60. Bad Tidings to You

60. Bad Tidings to You

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


Bad Tidings to You

I once bought my kids a set of batteries for Christmas with a note on it saying, toys not included.

~Bernard Manning

Many years ago, when I was engaged to Eleanor’s son, Eleanor said something that I considered very odd. “Don’t worry, honey,” she said out of the blue. “I don’t play games.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. Parcheesi? Bridge?

“Head games,” Eleanor clarified, seeing my confusion.

That didn’t clear it up for me. I come from a family that could easily be called honest to a fault. Head games? I was perplexed and a little uneasy.

Turns out that Eleanor’s family—and it is most definitely Eleanor’s family—does indeed play head games. And what’s more, the object of the game is to do whatever The Head dictates at all times or suffer the punishments. This great reigning toad of a woman can wield anything from a cold shoulder to a rude e-mail, but my favorite without a doubt is what I call “Punishment by Christmas Present.”

It started after I had been married to Eleanor’s son for a couple of years, when Eleanor’s other son married Natalie. Eleanor didn’t like the new bride, so everyone in the family dutifully shunned her. Everyone but me. I’d never met Natalie. How could I know if I liked her or not?

This did not sit well with Eleanor. On Christmas morning, she fixed me with her shrewish eyes as I opened my gift. It was… a cloth thing of some sort. I was twenty-seven years old and a size four, and it looked like a billowing tent made from yards and yards of gray fleece. It easily could have housed a family of three and some small pets. At the top was something that looked like a three-foot-tall, knitted chimney in candy cane stripes. That turned out to be a turtleneck. It rolled down and down until it looked just like a cross between a striped goiter warmer and a neck brace. Eleanor’s gift was a muumuu that practically mooed.

Did her eyes twinkle, or did I only imagine it?

And then, the proverbial fly on the poop: “I thought it looked just like you!” she grinned. The horror!

As bad as my Punishment Gifts were, they were nothing compared to Natalie’s. Every year, Eleanor sent each of her sons’ families the ceramic pieces to a Christmas village. One year, Natalie’s birthday gift was the five-dollar garbage cans that went with the set. Natalie cried.

Eleanor is not simply a bad gift-giver. She never buys bad gifts for herself or her daughter, but only for those who refuse to agree with her or stroke her ever-wounded ego. If Eleanor is pleased, the gifts are downright lavish. Whenever anyone does something that she considers a slight, they can count on getting the Punishment Gift at the next holiday. Or worse, their children will get bad gifts. If Eleanor is really angry, the gifts will be about three days late.

Ironically, Natalie and I became friends because of the way Eleanor divided her family. As a result, my gifts got worse… or better, depending on how one looks at it, since I’ve grown to enjoy the surprises.

One year, I couldn’t figure out what the gift actually was. It was a small plastic square with a snow scene on it. Cap to something? Coaster? Tiny wall hanging of some sort? I had fun secretly polling friends. No one else knew, either. And I was somewhat proud of the way I got around the topic in my thank you note. Since I lived in a temperate climate at the time, I told Eleanor that her gift reminded me of the years I had spent in the cold.

Natalie took a different tack. “I will certainly think of you every time I see these!” she exclaimed of the garbage cans.

We figure Natalie will never get another gift from Eleanor again. She is not heartbroken.

~T. Powell Pryce

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